Canadian Rocky

Thursday August 23rd, 2007
Said U.S. captain Nicklaus about Austin, "I don't know whether Woody will bring golf or bang himself in the head."
Robert Beck/SI

Game on, right? This should be the year — over four days beginning on Sept. 27, in the crisp Canadian autumn, at old Royal Montreal Golf Club — that the Presidents Cup goes Ryder. Everything's all feisty. You've got International players, some of them, annoyed with their captain, Gary Player. You've got American players, all of them, embarrassed by the U.S. performance last year at the K Club in Dublin against Ian Woosnam's Eurolads. You've got Ernie Els, front man for the Internationals, sick of losing to T. Woods (most recently by three at Southern Hills). You've got the great Woody Austin (43 and the pride of Derby, Kans.) representing the U.S. of A. for the first time. You've got bigname players from both teams who'll be frazzled after playing six tournaments in seven weeks (the Bridgestone Invitational, the PGA Championship and the four FedEx Cup events) and looking to let off a little steam. It could get sloppy. It could be good.

If you watch all your golf on CBS, whose weekly telecasts are so American-slanted, you might not know this: The team that has Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk can't even sniff the International team. Not on paper. The Internationals will field 11 of the top 26 players in the world. By Sunday of the PGA Championship, the last day to make the team on points, the U.S. captain, Jack Nicklaus, had to be feeling Tom Lehman's pain from Medinah a year ago. Lehman, boss man of the 2006 Ryder Cup team, had a list with a couple dozen names that would yield two captain's picks. You wouldn't call it a wish list. It included Bart Bryant and Jonathan Byrd and John Rollins. Skilled golfers? Yes. World-beaters? No. And in these team competitions you need world-beaters. Fast-forward to August 2007. The list was unchanged.

Well, slightly changed. Lehman's two picks from a year ago, Stewart Cink and Scott Verplank, made the team on points this year. Nicklaus, serving as captain for the third consecutive time, went to Lucas Glover (No. 11 on the list) and Hunter Mahan (14), passing over Rolllins (12) and Brett Wetterich (13).

The picking game could not have been easy for Nicklaus, who neither plays nor watches much golf these days. But don't feel too bad for Big Jack. His assistant captain, Jeff Sluman, can beat Player's guy, TV's Ian Baker-Finch.

More to the point, Jack's assistant has been playing a full schedule, and the players love him. So the Americans have that going for them, which is nice.

But the Internationals have . . . Ernie Els and Adam Scott and Vijay Singh and Geoff Ogilvy and Rory Sabbatini and K.J. Choi and Retief Goosen and Angel Cabrera and Trevor Immelman and Stuart Appleby. Those are the 10 guys — proven, accomplished, experienced international talents — who made it on points. Before we get to the names of Player's captain's picks, here are some of the guys he didn't select: Camilo Villegas, Tim Clark, Robert Allenby, Aaron Baddeley, Rod Pampling and Andres Romero. Instead, Player reached into his bag stuffed with tricks and pulled out Tiger-beater Nick O'Hearn (he has twice defeated Woods in match play) and Canada's Mike Weir (20th on the International list).

Nicklaus did get one excellent piece of news on Sunday night when Austin's closing 67 and second-place finish at Southern Hills got him the 10th spot on the team. Woody is the closest thing golf has to Larry David's Krazee-Eyez Killa, if you've ever seen that Curb Your Enthusiasm character (season 3, episode 28), and even if you haven't, you get the idea. Woody's eyes, blue and darting and rimmed in red, were looking a little crazy (in a good way) when he talked about playing for Team USA. "It makes me real happy because I've always wanted to be in one of those things," said Woody, who finished two shots behind Woods. "I'd like to think that my personality is a lot like Tiger's — very out there, very emotional. I like mano a mano, one-on-one, look-you-in-the-eye."

Tim finchem, the PGA Tour commissioner, should be thrilled that Austin, a player with a pulse, made the team and should be congratulated for getting Nicklaus to run the squad again. The Presidents Cup desperately needs Tiger to want to be there, and for Tiger, Austin's presence and Big Jack's are a plus.

There have been years at the Ryder Cup in which on body language and results alone you had every reason to think that Tiger would have been much happier spearfishing or something. However, a week with Jack is a good thing for him. He has said often of Nicklaus, in various ways, that "for two guys who don't spend a lot of time together, there's a closeness there." So that's a good thing. Plus, there's his new teammate, Austin powers. Maybe Austin is his new playing partner too.

Woods on the Woodman, on Sunday night: "Woody's fiery. He's competitive. That's what you need on those teams. You need someone who will get out there and give it his best, give everything he's got, give his heart and soul in each and every round. Being so emotional, I think that's a good thing in team events. And it adds to the team. It gets everyone more fired up. I think that will certainly enhance the team."

As Tiger endorsements go that's an A plus. Regarding Austin, Nicklaus said on Monday morning that he would add emotion to the team. "I don't know whether Woody will bring golf or bang himself in the head," said Nicklaus.

One of the things Woods likes about playing for Nicklaus is that Jack keeps the place sane. "The Presidents Cup is what the Ryder Cup used to be," Nicklaus said last year. "A friendly competition for bragging rights." Woods can relate to that. What's harder for him to accept is what the Ryder Cup has become, an international TV spectacle at which everybody's making money — NBC, the European tour, the PGA of America — while the pros play for glory. Accordingly, Jackie Burke, a former Ryder Cup player and captain, said recently to a New York Times columnist, "[Tiger] doesn't think his Ryder Cup record will be on his gravestone." Actually, it won't. And Tiger knows it.

It's daunting, what Tiger has to do: Every year he has to give up a week to an international competition that really does little to enrich his life or reputation. If anything, these events hurt it. In even-numbered years he plays in the Ryder Cup, at which his overall record is 10-13-2. In odd-numbered years he plays in the Presidents Cup, at which he's 10-9-1. You maybe didn't know that. You probably know that he has now won 13 majors.

At the Presidents Cup the two teams have barbecues together. That works for Woods. Stuart Appleby is one of his golf buddies. After winning the Bridgestone and the PGA, taking this week off and then playing (this is his plan) in the four FedEx Cup events, a Molson with Stuey in Montreal might sound all right to Woods.

The international team, despite all the talent, is not living in an Eden, and that might serve it well, if you use the Billy Martin New York Yankees as an example. When Player made his comments about steroid use in golf at the British Open last month, Els and Goosen, South Africans who have known Player, a South African icon for decades, did not hide their displeasure. Player said he knew one golfer who was using, but he didn't cite a name as he was "sworn to secrecy." Els was surprised, but Goosen was indignant.

"I don't know what Gary was trying to prove," he said. "I don't know if he's trying to damage the sport."

Said Els, "If he knows it, he knows something I don't know."

By Southern Hills, Els tried to turn it into a little nothing. He said, "I think we'll needle him about it a little bit. We'll give him a lot of stick when we get there, but it'll be tongue-in-cheek." Sure, you could give Player a bottle of fl axseed oil and maybe he'd laugh. But steroid accusations in sports are about as serious as a heart attack, and when you put everybody under suspicion by not naming names, it's nothing like a laughing matter.

At the PGA the Presidents Cup seemed to loom more significantly for the International players than for the Americans. Last Saturday, Goosen and Appleby, trying to play his way into the top 10 to make the team on points, happened to be paired together. And they both happened to wear black pants, pale red shirts and white caps (or visor, in Appleby's case). "We looked at each other and laughed," Appleby said of the unintentional impression that they were in uniform. "We didn't talk about it, but I was thinking it."

Padraig Harrington, the British Open champion and a European Ryder Cup stalwart, said last week that he watches and enjoys the Presidents Cup, and the only thing "that separates the Ryder Cup from the Presidents Cup is 100 years of history." Well, 67 years and a bunch of knockdown, drag-out fights. Four years ago, in South Africa, Nicklaus and Player agreed to let the matches end in a tie, even though the written rules require a playoff to be completed. Player and Nicklaus did the gentlemanly thing, the old-school thing. Depending on how you feel, it either defined the Presidents Cup as a true sport or as a wussy golfing tea party.

This year, with Austin, that old headbanger, and quote-machine Sabbatini in the house, some of that gentility might slip away. If Sabbatini, a South African with Dallas swagger, plays Woods in singles, there might be a little tension, just as there was in 2000, when Singh's caddie wore a visor embroidered with the words TIGER WHO?

Sabbatini got his name on golf blogs everywhere earlier this year when he said Woods is "more beatable" now than ever. Woods bristled. If you challenge Woods with words, he'll always bristle. Els, bemused, has been watching it from a distance. "I think Rory really seems to want Tiger in singles on Sunday," Els said. "Seems as if he's really after him so he can play him head-on. But they'll probably push me to play him like they always do."

That may not sound like a man who really relishes the prospect, but cut Ernie some slack. There's scar tissue there. Since Tiger's come on the scene, it's two majors for the lavishly talented Els and 13 for Woods. In Presidents Cup matches Woods is 4-2 against Els.

Ernie probably has the right attitude for this competition. He was paired once with Nick Price. Price was grinding and felt that Els was coasting. Price got in the face of his partner and countryman and said, "This point may not mean a lot to you, but it means a f--- of a lot to me."

They halved the match. You could imagine them celebrating in the usual manner, PC-style: beers with the enemy.

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